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Waste Wednesday - Can a Vegan Diet Save The Planet?

  • Can switching to a vegan diet save the planet? Studies have been numerous, but results at times conflicting, as to the effectiveness of this dietary switch on combatting climate change.  

    Despite this, veganism is a trend most definitely on the rise. Over the last two years in the UK, there has been a 700% increase in the number of vegans. A number of key studies have helped to fuel this rise, one of which was carried out by the University of Oxford. The study looked at food eaten on 40,000 farms across 119 countries and, looking at climate change emissions, and water and air pollution, concluded that transitioning to a vegan diet was the single most effective way an individual could reduce their environmental impact. Indeed, the study claimed that, by becoming vegan, an individual’s carbon footprint falls by up to 73%. Their evidence showed that, although the meat and dairy industry are responsible for 60% of all agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, they provide only 18% of the calories and 37% of the protein of food generated worldwide.  

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released a special report on climate change and land use, complied by over 100 experts worldwide. The report emphasised the environmental and health benefits of a reduction in meat consumption, but fell short of recommending a complete switch to a vegan diet. The reason for this was the recommendation of a case-by-case consideration of the importance of animal protein. In many developing countries, animal protein is vital in ensuring the population meets their protein requirements, and in the UK soil quality is greatly enhanced through agricultural activity. Furthermore, a reduction in grazing activities across the UK would result in the reversion of much of our countryside to woodland and, subsequently, a loss in bio-diversity even greater than that currently being experienced.  

    This is similar to the conclusion made by the Eat-Lancet Commission, developers of the Planetary Health Diet, a diet designed to feed our growing population without damaging irreversibly our planet. Made up of 35% whole grains, 500 grams of fruit and vegetables daily, and protein primarily sourced from plants, the diet does leave room for modest amounts of animal products. Professor Walter Willett, from Harvard University, explained that a strict vegan diet was not advocated due to concerns over whether this was the, ‘healthiest’ option. Indeed, without supplementation, key vitamins and minerals can be missing from a vegan diet, including Vitamin B12, Iron, Calcium and Vitamin D.  

    On the other end of the spectrum, research conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University found that certain fruits and vegetables produce more greenhouse gas emissions, and have higher resource use per calorie, than meat. Their study made headlines by suggesting that lettuce produces three times more emissions than bacon, with aubergine, celery and cucumbers also resource intensive. They followed this research up, however, by emphasising that their study was not meant to discourage a reduction in meat consumption, but once again highlight how the issue is not black and white.  

    Avocadoes and quinoa are another important example of this fact; both are suitable for those following a vegan diet, and both are incredibly healthy dietary additions, however both have had major impacts environmentally, as well as socially, on their country of origin. In Mexico, for example, the fact that more money can now be made by exporting avocadoes than petroleum has led to a huge demand for illegal deforestation to clear the way for more trees.  

    This also raises the question of food miles – it is not hard, when following a vegan diet, to consume oranges grown in Spain, beans brought from Brazil, and goji berries sourced from China. But is this an issue only faced by those following a vegan diet? Probably not. And what true environmental cost does this have? A study conducted by Weber and Matthews concluded that, in terms of overall food emissions, transports effect was small, only contributing 11%. The study concluded that a reduction in meat and dairy consumption was far more effective than buying locally produced food.  

    Although there are individual differences, one key point does resonate across the studies; an individual, by reducing their intake of animal products, especially meat and dairy, can make incredible environmental savings, even without having to fully switch to a vegan diet. Indeed, in certain situations, converting entirely to a vegan diet can have negative impacts and, without careful consideration, can be devoid of important nutrients.